This article is from the June 2012 issue of Total Politics
It always struck me as ironic that Pete Townshend, composer of the anti-authoritarian rock anthem Won’t Get Fooled Again, emerged as one of the most vociferous supporters of the Iraq war. It represented the ultimate triumph of propaganda over idealism that he came to be fooled by just the slippery sloganeering warmongers he had warned us about.
Townshend’s song came to mind amid all the fuss over Kony 2012. Like most people, I first found out on Facebook about this viral video. [In years to come, we’ll stop asking, “Do you remember where you were when you found out about x…?” – we’ll simply assume it was on Facebook.] On 5 March 2012, a dozen or more of my FB friends shared the Kony 2012 video, with uncharacteristically overwrought comments like, “This made me cry” and “OMG – we have to do something about this”.
I watched it, and my reaction, too, was one of shock and awe. I was awed by its power: the way story, music, graphics, language and character had been mixed to form the perfect propaganda weapon. What shocked was how this complex, brutal, longstanding civil war had been reduced to a Star Wars-esque plot of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’.
But it worked. Within 48 hours, the video had been viewed nine million times (helped by an early retweet from Oprah Winfrey), within a week rising to 100 million. Over 60 per cent of under-30s watched it – twice the number who bother to vote in general elections. And people were overwhelmingly supportive of the video’s aims; positive comments outweighed negative comments by a ratio of ten to one after the first couple of days, and although this gradually decreased over time, an overwhelming majority still support the video.
This is the way forward for war propaganda. In future, governments won’t need to issue dodgy dossiers to justify war – their dirty work will be done by our family and friends on Facebook. Alastair Campbell must have been kicking himself. If they’d had this capacity 10 years ago, Blair would never have become ‘Bliar’, there’d have been no Hutton Inquiry and David Kelly might still be alive. If this video wasn’t funded by the CIA, then it should have been, and, if the CIA wasn’t involved with Kony 2012, you can bet your bottom dollar it now has dozens of guys looking at how it can weave its messages into similar future campaigns.
Kony 2012 succeeded in a week where the neo-Cons had failed in over a year. Bush and Blair failed to win clear support for their doctrine of pre-emptive strikes, but here, some unknown film-maker had persuaded the public that we should throw our all into a bloody civil war that had raged for decades and where we had no financial or security interest. As people tweeted and shared, that was the idea they were spreading. My most peace-loving, guitar-strumming friends had been turned into gun-toting wannabe guerillas in about 29 minutes.
The consequences of this are terrifying. If our deepest morals and values can be crushed so quickly on issues like death and war, what else is possible? It places film-makers in a position of incredible power, able to move society any way they want on a whim. What if a documentary-maker released a powerful, hate-based piece on behalf of the BNP two days before the next general election, aimed at the not-working class who rarely bother to vote, and igniting their anger at ‘immigrants taking their jobs, their houses and even their lovers’? What if a movie-maker had incited even more people to riot during the breakdown of public order last summer?
Through Kony 2012, we’ve seen the future, and it stinks. It’s a future void of morals and truth. Everyone who works in Westminster needs to understand why and how this film hit its target so that we can spot in future when these techniques are being used with the public and can debate against them on a level playing field (the Foreign Office, in particular, should note: the best way of responding to a viral video is not by writing a letter to members of the House of Lords – there are more modern forms of communication available). Although Kony 2012 is a modern, social media-based form of communication, the techniques it used are as old as time. This was good old-fashioned propaganda. Here’s the breakdown:
The film used ‘pacing and leading’. This is a technique used by hypnotists. Pacing establishes a powerful connection by pointing out a person’s current experience. For example, “You’re sitting on a wooden chair. You can hear the faint sound of traffic outside. You can feel the warmth of the sun on your skin.” Leading is where the speaker starts implanting suggestions: “Your hands are beginning to feel very heavy. So are your eyelids. You can feel yourself going to sleep.” Kony 2012 used this same technique. The opening sequences quickly flashed through a sequence of images of people scrolling through Facebook, going onto YouTube and clicking ‘play’ on a video: exactly the same actions the viewer had just performed. So the initial hook went in.
Start from a premise with which no one can disagree. The ancient Greeks called this a topos: a universal truth, a commonplace. It’s the best place to start an argument because it establishes a pattern of agreement. Obama’s topos for the American electorate was, “Yes, we can”. In this film, there were two topoi: The first was, “Every child matters”, (coincidentally also the mantra of education policy). Kony 2012 drove this home with the most pathos-laden images of babies being born, mothers and fathers crying with relief and joy, and a voice-over reminding us we all came into the world this way. The second topos was that we all want to be part of a community. The desire to connect is the most fundamental of human instincts, and this would have had particular resonance with viewers spending time on Facebook.
Be the daddy. The ‘father’ is our most powerful authority figure. George Orwell was wrong to talk about Big Brother in 1984 – big brothers are easily toppled, as Ed Miliband proved. The father has greater power, and the president of the US and the prime minister of the UK are the metaphorical fathers of our nations. The film-maker established himself as ‘daddy’ by telling the story through the prism of a dialogue between himself and his naïve – and impossibly cute – son, Gavin. This forced us to view the world through Gavin’s eyes, made the narrator ‘our father’ and placed viewers in a submissive, trusting position.
Create a bogeyman. There’s no better way of uniting people than by setting them up against someone else. It’s like an Orwell hate-session. Every propaganda piece needs a baddie, and the more monstrous and grotesque the baddie, the more effective the film. So we’re told that Kony turns girls into sex slaves and young boys into soldiers. For any who were uncertain of the message we were supposed to receive, when Kony’s name was mentioned, we were fed flashing images of Hitler.
Add peer pressure. Our only reliable reference point for what’s right and wrong is what those we admire think. In this case, the film-maker made sure we knew that everyone who mattered was onboard with Kony 2012. Of course, we’d have first found out about the video through seeing our friends sharing it, as well as celebrities like Justin Bieber and Winfrey. Then the video featured apparent endorsements from the likes of Obama and George Clooney. The suggestion was that everyone who mattered was onboard. Lest there be any doubt, the word “we” appeared more than any other in the video transcript – once every 30 words, on average – anchoring the film to the premise that the viewer and the film-maker are on the same side.
Use newspeak. Orwell used wonderful examples of ‘newspeak’ in 1984, and it’s remarkable how closely the director of Kony 2012 imitated him. Orwell’s 1984 had the famous newspeak line “War is Peace” – we all laughed at this absurd line when we studied it for GCSE English – we’d never be so stupid as to fall for such gobbledygook. Yet, of the 100 million people who watched Kony 2012, not one commented on the Orwellian rip-off lines that featured: “We will fight war” and “Join our army for peace”.
Orwell saw Kony 2012 coming. So, too, did Townshend. “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss,” was the final, prescient line of Won’t Get Fooled Again, delivered against a backing track of thundering drums and roaring guitars.
But Townshend got fooled again. Chances are we will too.